Pitt is starting off the season strong as they defeated the Syracuse Orange 21-10 last week to move to 2-0 on the season. Despite some rough patches against Syracuse, the Panthers righted the ship and sailed home safely with a victory. However, this Saturday, they will face their toughest test yet in the 1-1 Lousiville Cardinals. This will be the first ranked matchup at Heinz Field since 2009, and while Louisville is coming off a loss to Miami, they are still a very talented team. Just what are the Panthers facing Saturday?
The Cardinals run a scheme that is specific to them. Head Coach Scott Satterfield brings with him an offense mainly built on quickness, misdirection, and explosive plays. At its base, it is an outside-zone running scheme with triple-option aspects to it. That means a few things have to be true for this offense to work properly. First, the quarterback has to be mobile and must be capable of creating plays with his legs. Second, the runner must have enough burst and speed to win the corner on those zone runs. They mix it up from the running game with lots of quick throws, including mesh concepts, pick routes, and basic slant flat concepts to get their receivers easy yards after the catch.
The triple-option aspect rarely employs two actual running backs. At times it can, and the offensive line will employ a split zone-blocking technique for the running to the side of the quarterback. However, this player option acts more of a force player or lead blocker. However, what they often do is send their slot receiver in orbit motion to act as the pitch player, while the running back will act as the dive player. The lead blocker then collapses upon the force edge player. That slot receiver is the dangerous Tutu Atwell, who Pitt must watch for on Saturday.
The other key part of their running game is their zone scheme. This is a hybrid outside zone and inside zone scheme, although they try to attack the strong side often with their outside zone scheme. The Cardinals almost never do this from under center, but instead either out of the pistol or shotgun, as it allows more freedom for cutback lanes for the running back. In addition, it is easier to mix in the triple option concepts and the heavy dose of play-action out of those looks to keep the defense honest so they are on their toes. In order to stop the running game, the team’s defensive ends and linebackers often have to remain disciplined.
The other mode of attack is the deep passing game. Whenever the Cardinals see an opportunity, mostly when they spread the defense out and go into 10 personnel, they try to push the ball up the seam and into the middle of the field. Often, they use seam routes and posts instead of straight go routes. However, for Pitt’s man coverage heavy defense, anything flies to create an explosive deep play.
As for the Louisville defense, the Panthers will face a similar defense to the one they faced yesterday. The Cardinals run a base 3-4 defense, but more often than not, they operate out of the 3-3-5 look. That is what Syracuse used last week. It essentially calls for extra safety at the strongside linebacker position. The perils of the base defense are rather simple. While a defense gets an extra coverage defender for tight ends and quicker slot receivers attacking the middle of the field, they also get smaller in the run fits. That means the running game is a great way to attack the scheme, especially when the linebackers are smaller like Louisville’s are. Cam’Ron Harris and Miami shredded this team on the ground, and that was part of the reason why they did that so well.
Players to Watch
QB Malik Cunningham
The Louisville signal-caller is easily the most talented quarterback the Panthers have faced on the season. With a live arm and the ability to make magic outside the pocket, Cunningham is a dangerous quarterback to keep in check. His magic outside of structure starts with his legs, but he does a great job of being a passer first. Instead of taking off first, he will extend the play outside of structure, keep his eyes downfield, and look to get it to one of his receivers. All of that being said, Cunningham does make some turnover worthy throws a game. His processing has to improve and Pitt may get an opportunity to force a few turnovers.
RB Javian Hawkins
Hawkins is everything the Cardinals want at running back and more. An NFL talent, Hawkins combines delightful speed, burst, and quickness with a tough brand of running that a workhorse running back may have. This is a player that understands how to manipulate angles and defenders in space and make them look foolish. His cutting ability and elusiveness in the open field make him a dangerous open-field runner. The Panthers will have their hands full with the very talented Hawkins behind Cunningham.
WR Tutu Atwell
Lousiville’s premier deep threat, Atwell is a weapon that the Cardinals in all the ways they can. He is the pitch player on triple-option schemes, he is their deep threat out of the slot that stretches the defense vertically, but he also works underneath in yards after the catch opportunities. Atwell is light and small, but make no mistake, his size does not define his game at the college level at least. He is going to be a handful for the Pitt defense to take care of and they must limit his opportunities to create big, explosive plays.
Matchups to Watch
Tutu Atwell vs Erick Hallett and Damar Hamlin
Given the fact that Atwell works almost exclusively out of the slot, it is likely that Erick Hallet and Damar Hamlin will see him as the team’s primary defenders. Thus far on the season, Hallet has played quite well, but Atwell is entirely another step up from anyone, and that includes Syracuse’s Taj Harris. Hamlin has assumed the slot role for years when Pitt stays in base defense against three-receiver sets, but his lack of speed is a big question mark here for the Panthers. This would force them out of a lot of strict man coverage rules. Leaving Hamlin on an island is not a good idea against Atwell. If Hallet is able to showcase his skill and limit Atwell to a degree, this Pitt defense will an opportunity to get home and have Cunningham really feel the heat from the defensive line. The good news for Hallet is he is quick and has some legitimate long speed. However, whether that is enough will remain to be seen. He was also injured against Syracuse and may not be 100% going into Saturday’s game.
Pitt Offensive Line vs Louisville Defensive Line
The running game will be big for Pitt this week. It may be the best way for Pitt to win this game. If they can control the clock and grind out yards on the ground with a committee that they have been employing, the Cardinals could be in for a rather long day with a rested Panthers defense as well. A week ago, the Hurricanes gashed the Cardinals on the ground. While the Cardinals are not by any means lockdown in the secondary, the advantages of keeping the ball away from the dangerous trio on the other side of the ball for Louisville would be helpful. That does not mean to shy away from passing the ball, not by a long shot. However, the Panthers may be able to net a few explosive plays on the ground if they win up front.